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‘The president is only as good as the individuals who support him or her’: OU’s unconventional appointment of Joseph Harroz draws confidence of many, concern of some

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Joseph Harroz

OU President Joseph Harroz during the OU Board of Regents meeting May 9.

The appointment of Joseph Harroz from interim to permanent OU president has drawn varied responses from faculty, alumni, students and other stakeholders.

Over the last three years, the university has seen two presidents: Harroz and his predecessor, OU alumnus and business executive James Gallogly. After Gallogly’s single-year tenure ended in 2019, Harroz was named interim president.

“We have a choice,” Gary Pierson, Chairman of the OU Board of Regents said after its unanimous confirmation vote for Harroz’s permanent presidency at the May 9 meeting. “We can get behind this president and make a positive difference in the lives of many, many people at all levels. Or, we can hold on to insignificant differences, hold on to disagreements from the past and we can continue to push personal agendas to our detriment.”

The announcement was live streamed to allow those in quarantine to watch from home. Some took to Twitter to voice congratulations or disapproval of the OU Board of Regents’ selection. Some lined up for a drive-by, contactless Presidential Welcome Wave on Monday. 

The Daily interviewed seven members of the university community, from student body leaders to most senior professors, from faculty who has worked with him most closely to those among his harshest critics.

Among the praises and complaints, some major themes stood out: confidence in Harroz’s capabilities; apprehension over the selection process; examination of Harroz’s track record of diversity, equity and inclusion; and concerns about Harroz’s long-time relationship with former OU President David Boren’s administration.

The man for the moment

After OU announced plans to return in-person to campus for the fall semester amid COVID-19, human relations professor emeritus George Henderson said he knew next semester would be a challenging one for Harroz. But, said the faculty member since 1967, Harroz shouldn’t shoulder the burden of the pandemic alone.

“The president is only as good as the individuals who support him or her,” Henderson said. “The virus is not just the president’s challenge, it’s all of our challenge — all of us who are committed and dedicated to the university. After all, (Harroz) was not chosen to be God.”

Joshua Nelson, who served as Faculty Senate chair for the past year, echoed Henderson’s sentiment in an email to The Daily that Harroz should partner with the university community in addressing COVID-19.

“Preparing for (COVID-19 challenges) will require some speculation, albeit informed,” Nelson said. “Where that information comes from will make all the difference, and we're thankfully in the position of having a great deal of expertise to draw on. The solicitousness that Joe brings to his leadership style equips him to address these challenges very well.”

OU English professor emeritus Alan Velie, who has been at the university since 1967, said the university was in a poor financial state when Harroz became interim president last year, and the financial fallout from COVID-19 could make the upcoming semesters particularly difficult. Velie also said he thought Harroz handled the February demonstration from the Black Emergency Response Team well, which signaled to Velie that Harroz was well-equipped for the job.

“(Harroz) already faced pretty severe fiscal problems,” Velie said. “And he certainly faced those very public racial problems and he got through that crisis. So that is a good indication he’ll be able to handle future ones.” 

Others in the OU community voiced a lack of confidence in Harroz’s abilities to lead during a crisis. Suzette Grillot, professor of international and area studies and former dean of the David L. Boren College of International Studies, said she was skeptical of Harroz's abilities as a leader.

“The University of Oklahoma was already in bad shape financially before the coronavirus pandemic,” Grillot said. “We already struggle with a commitment to our community in general, so how are we supposed to pull together and follow a leader?”

In-house selection

The OU Board of Regents’ policy manual suggests using search committees for administrative hires, and that the board “shall be guided by (search committees) in most instances,” but the regents are not bound by or limited to recommendations of search committees.

In selecting a permanent president, Pierson said in the May 9 meeting, the regents considered the opinions of all stakeholders including faculty, staff, students, alumni, the public, government officials and peer institutions.

“We know there’s going to be some people that are going to say we didn’t do this right because we didn’t do a national search,” Pierson said.

Pierson said the regents researched the average duration presidents hired from out of state tend to stay at universities. Pierson did not say if the data supported or discouraged using national searches to hire university presidents, but that the regents considered the history of national searches at OU and how many presidents from national searches lasted less than five years at OU.

Of the seven previous interim presidents of OU, all of which were employed by the university before their presidential tenure, only one — George Lynn Cross — stayed in the position for more than two years.

The Norman Transcript asked Pierson later that day why the regents decided to forego the search process, especially after criticism of the university’s 2018 presidential search. Pierson responded that there may be a “vocal few” who didn’t agree with the regents’ process, and that “each person has their own agenda.”

“When I hear the words ‘open and transparent,’ I’m not even sure what that means in this context, but I do know what we’ve had here, and that is: We’ve watched (Harroz) for 23 years,” Pierson said. “We’ve watched (Harroz) every day for 12 months. You will never have a search process with any geography that is more intense than that — it’s an impossibility.”

Pierson was legal counsel to and then led the Oklahoma Publishing Company — which ran the state’s largest newspaper, an institution whose mission is to be open and transparent with the public — for 17 years. 

Jess Eddy, a former OU employee who accused Boren of sexual misconduct, said he felt like the selection of Harroz without a search committee was a “slap in the face” to the OU community.

“I think the regents have demonstrated that they don't respect the university or the public's right to have input into the selection of a president,” Eddy said. “I think the university community, through the Gallogly search process, made it very clear what a university search is and what it looks like when it’s open and transparent. And I’m deeply troubled that the regents apparently think they’re above that and can just do these things on their discretion.”

Grillot echoed Eddy’s criticism of the search process, noting the letter sent February 2019 by former Chair of OU’s Faculty Senate, Sarah Ellis. The letter, written on behalf of the senate’s executive committee, expressed concerns with 2018’s confidential presidential selection process.

“We took (the regents) at their word that they would form a search committee, that there would be a process,” Grillot said. “The hope was always that there would be an open process. Of course, we knew that (Harroz) would be a candidate and of course, we knew that (Harroz) would have an advantage after spending 15 months or more in that position. But nonetheless, process matters. And if that had happened, and there had been an open and transparent process with (Harroz) as a candidate among other candidates, then so be it.”

In the May 9 meeting, Pierson said Harroz was one of the three finalists in the 2018 presidential search, which ultimately ended in the selection of Gallogly. When Gallogly retired in May 2019, after 10 months in the position, Pierson said the regents told Harroz he had “sufficient support” to be appointed to the vacant presidential position.

Pierson said that in the late-night May 2019 meeting, Harroz said he would rather be an interim president for 15 months than accept a permanent appointment. Pierson said Harroz “had the job if he wanted it,” but Harroz instead wanted an interim position to provide the university with a “period of calm” after OU’s “intrigue and drama of the last few years.”

When asked if there was any issue with the regents not using a search committee, businessman and former regent Renzi Stone answered that the question was for the regents, not for him. 

There are many ways to hire a university president and all are fraught with pluses and minuses, champions and detractors,” Stone said.

Grillot said the revelation that Harroz had already been offered a permanent presidency last year proves this year’s selection process was “a fake search.”

“Now (Harroz) ends up with a permanent job without any process,” Grillot said. “It's deceptive. It's not above-board. It's not truthful, and it's a violation of their public duty.”

Nelson said Harroz’s appointment comes during a time of crisis, when stricter search expectations should relax to allow for more flexibility.

“Filling the position without an updated search, as established processes call for, isn't ideal, but given the circumstances we're facing with the coronavirus, the difficult budgetary choices that will need to be made, the firmness and stability the institution needs to have moving forward — there will unfortunately be a lot of things that aren't ideal,” Nelson said. 

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Justin Norris, OU Student Government Association president, said he is confident in Harroz’s abilities to further diversity, equity and inclusion at OU. After hiring Belinda Higgs Hyppolite as the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, opening a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and navigating the BERT demonstration following OU professors’ uses of the N-word in class, Norris said he believes those issues are the university’s “biggest opportunities to grow.”

“In every conversation I've had with President Harroz, (diversity, inclusion and equity) have been something he’s mentioned explicitly without being asked,” Norris said. “So I think he sees where the potential rooms for growth are, and that he is more than capable of working toward tangible change in those areas. He is also so willing to work collaboratively with other individuals who provide such necessary insight into those situations, and I think that's reflected in the appointment of Dr. Hyppolite as the vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Eddy said Harroz has “targeted certain important constituencies and other student leaders,” giving them “false promises” about his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Grillot said for Harroz’s commitment to diversity to be believable, he needs to “commit resources” to it, rather than “just holding meetings” about it.

Henderson said, as someone who created a program that focuses on diversity and as a professor who teaches diversity, he still asks himself what he could have done better. Henderson said he thinks Harroz asks himself the same question about his dealings with diversity issues over the past year.

“There will be someone who is second-guessing, and saying (Harroz) should have done it better,” Henderson said. “But he probably would have said the same thing to himself before the critics even said it, because he's always looking for a way to do it better.”

“There's a game that we play at this university,” Henderson said. “It's like, select a leader and then destroy him or her. How could he have done it better? Who knows? The key is that he has good intentions and good motives, and is willing to learn from his mistakes and not make the same mistakes twice.”

In the shadow of the Boren administration

In March 2019, Eddy and former University Club employee Levi Hilliard alleged sexual misconduct against Boren and former Vice President of Community Development Tripp Hall, respectively. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation subsequently launched an investigation into the criminal allegations and collected the Jones Day report surrounding the allegations in May 2019.

The Jones Day report found Eddy’s allegations to be “generally credible.”

Harroz served as Boren’s legislative director and legal counsel during Boren’s tenure in the U.S. Senate. Harroz worked as OU’s general counsel from 1994 to 2008 under then-President Boren, and as the dean of the College of Law from 2010 until his interim presidential appointment in 2019.

Eddy said Harroz’s decades-long relationship with Boren signals cronyism and cover-up.

“(The OU Board of Regents has) taken every measure to keep the truth under wraps to obscure it from the public view,” Eddy said. “And by putting (Harroz) in, you ensure that you have somebody — because of their history and association with David Boren — that is on the same page as you, (and) to make sure that the truth of what happened over the last 25 years never gets out.”

Grillot, who was named a dean under Boren, also said she believed Harroz’s closeness with the accused former president casts a shadow on the legitimacy of his appointment that can only be addressed if he came forward about the allegations against Boren.

Henderson said the idea Harroz was too close to Boren is unfair.

Velie said regardless of Boren’s actions, Harroz shouldn’t be held responsible.

“I don’t think anything (Boren) did wrong can be blamed in any fashion on Joe Harroz,” Velie said. “People may resent Harroz because he knew Boren and worked for him, but that’s guilt by association. And I don’t think that would be fair.”

Eddy said Harroz’s relationship with Boren is something that shouldn’t be ignored, and that relationship is relevant to how Harroz might handle similar issues in the future.

“I'm not confident (Harroz) has the intent, desire or the willpower to effect reform at OU, particularly when it comes to discrimination, racism, sexual misconduct, and things of that nature,” Eddy said. “And when it comes to the Title IX and Office of General Counsel, I have no confidence that (Harroz) has the intention to reform those mechanisms to create a safe and legal environment for all students, faculty, and staff.”

Harroz announced in June 2018 the university would conduct a review of OU’s Title IX office after Eddy and Hilliard called for a review in an April 2018 regents’ meeting. The office has been criticized for failing to adequately address instances of misconduct on campus. OU’s Title IX coordinator Bobby Mason resigned this spring.

The university’s recent history of presidential searches has been unconventional and fraught with controversy. That, coupled with this unprecedented moment, make this decision all the more complicated.

Nelson said while the circumstances surrounding Harroz’s appointment weren't ideal, he understands the regents’ choice to appoint him during this uncertain time in the university’s history.

“Given the limitations and costs we'd face in doing a search in our current circumstances, his appointment feels like the right choice in this moment,” Nelson said. “For future, less tumultuous moments, the Faculty Senate will expect a return to the processes and procedures that have long undergirded the institution.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news managing editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research.

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